SACRAMENTO — Amendments to a bill have been proposed allowing metropolitan planning organizations and, in Southern California, county transportation commissions including LA Metro to put on the ballot regional anti-congestion fees that could be passed by a simple majority of voters instead of by the two-thirds “super-majority” required for all new taxes.
The amendments to Senate Bill 791 were proposed Monday by California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). The anti-congestion charge, in the form of per gallon fees on fuel paid at the pump, could be used to fund transit, bike and pedestrian projects, toll lanes, and the safety and maintenance of state highways and bridges. The charge would be levied on the sale of gasoline and diesel fuel and, for electric cars, on vehicle registration, and could be implemented for up to 30 years.
Passage of Proposition 26 in 2010 required a two-thirds vote for most new fees, levies and other charges, which under the state’s previous rules could be passed by a simple majority vote. But Proposition 26 exempted from the two-thirds requirement those fees that directly benefit the people who pay them — in this case, motorists. The projects and programs funded by the charge would be required to specifically benefit motorists by reducing congestion.
“In 2008 voters in LA County miraculously voted to support the Measure R sales tax for transportation by a two-thirds vote in the throes of a collapsing economy. But, it should not require a miracle to ensure the future of our transportation system and our economy,” said Denny Zane, executive director of Move LA. “This bill provides the opportunity for congestion reduction strategies that can be approved by a sensible majority vote, including expanded transit services or highway improvements.
Revenues could pay for transit capital, operations and maintenance; bicycle and pedestrian programs and projects; programs and projects that would demonstrably reduce the growth in vehicle miles traveled (VMT); conversion of carpool lanes to toll lanes; and improvements “relative to the maintenance, safety and rehabilitation of state highways and bridges.”
In the Southern California region, each county has an independent transportation commission, such as LA Metro in Los Angeles County, that prepares a county-specific transportation plan. In addition, the metropolitan planning organization, which is called the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), prepares a regional transportation plan for the six-county area that includes Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial counties. Each commission as well as SCAG would be enabled to seek voter approval for anti-congestion charges, but only with projects and programs specified and strict accountability provisions.
Court decisions in the aftermath of Proposition 13 held that voter approval of new taxes for transportation required a two-thirds vote. This very steep standard has made it very difficult for transportation agencies to keep up with badly needed transportation system maintenance and expansion projects. Proposition 26 made it doubly difficult to raise additional revenue, at the very same time that other federal, state and local sources of revenue and funding for transportation are declining in part because of the bad economy as well as to the increased fuel efficiency of new cars, which has reduced gas tax revenues.
SB 791 enables transportation agencies around the state to seek majority voter approval for a congestion fee under circumstances allowed by both Propositions 13 and 26. It is supported by a coalition of leading business, labor and environmental organizations, including the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the Los Angeles Business Council, and the California League of Conservation Voters.
While traffic congestion plagues many cities, Los Angeles and other cities in Southern California are hardest hit. The Texas Transportation Institute, which tracks congestion statistics in the US, routinely ranks LA first for total congestion delays as well as per-capita delays. Considering the value of wasted time and fuel, TTI estimates the annual cost of traffic congestion in greater Los Angeles area is close to $10 billion